U of I Entomologist Berenbaum Honored At White House

U of I Professor May Berenbaum with President Obama

U of I entomologist May Berenbaum poses with President Obama prior to winning the National Medal of Science at the White House Thursday.

(courtesy White House)

A University of Illinois professor who studies declining bee colonies was honored Thursday by President Obama.  May Berenbaum was among 19 recipients at the White House.

Berenbaum, who's been on the Urbana campus since 1980, learned last month she would be among the recipients of the National Medal of Science.

Others at the Thursday morning event were honored with the National Medals of Technology and Innovation.

President Obama said the 19 recipients reflect the larger American experience – dreams of perseverance, in the face of skepticism and doubt.

“When they crept onto that farthest limb, and equipped with scientific reason, to believe in their own theories, and because they weren’t afraid to fail once in a while, they figured that eventually, they’d crack open some mystery that hadn’t been solved and the world would catch up," he said.

He also said great scientists deserve at least as much attention as celebrities. A message that resonated with Berenbaum.

She said in an interview today, “Yes it’s important to appreciate athletes and acknowledge their contributions but science is kind of a cultural and economic driver for the world. It’s nice that people can recognize a few scientists names.”

Berenbaum told Illinois Public Media last month that many of the insects she researches are especially noteworthy - and was still pinching herself over learning she was being honored.

"I don't think you can top this one," she said.  "I really don't.  This one is such an enormous honor.  Many people this year are science heroes of my own.  And I'm so incredibly thrilled to be on the same list."

Berenbaum says her parents, both chemists, would have loved to see her receive the National Medal of Science. Since both have passed away, she invited her 88-year-old aunt on the trip to Washington, DC, to represent her parents. 

She said she doesn't know yet what she will do with the 3-inch gold medal but joked that her immediate concern is getting it through airport security on the trip back to Champaign.

Berenbaum also created the Insect Fear Film Festival, an annual event that combines film screenings with discussions of insects and an insect petting zoo.

Story source: WILL